Sunday, November 18, 2012

Toldot Amidst Conflict & War in Israel, delivered 11/17/2012

            I love the word:   ויתרצצו  
 ויתרצצו (va’yit-ro-tz’tzu) – it rolls off the tongue in a manner which offers a poetic word painting of the scene unfolding at first within Rebecca and ultimately throughout the Jacob and Esau narrative.

  ויתרצצו   We can hear the struggle, we can feel it as the word crosses past our teeth.       
Early in our Torah portion, we read:

בקרבה הבנים ויתרצצו  The boys struggled against each other within her – within Rebecca.  Poor Rebecca, forced to endure these two forces rumbling and fighting within her womb.  It certainly wasn’t the pregnancy she was expecting.  It’s unclear if she was even interested in baring children; recall, it was Isaac’s prayer that was answered, not Rebecca’s.  And now, this small space, b’kirbah, within her, has been turned into a miniature war zone.

  ויתרצצו – It is also a fascinating word grammatically. Based on the root, רצצ , to oppress or crush, it is quite possibly related to the verb רוץ, meaning to run.  A historical circumstance that leads to the Rabbinic midrash imagining Jacob “running back and forth” within the womb whenever Rebecca passes by a place of Torah and Esau “running back and forth” whenever she passes a pagan Temple.

  ויתרצצו – The verb form of this word, a formulation that appears with this verbal root only this one time in the bible, is reflexive.  In Hebrew, the form is known as hitpalel.  Inherent in this verb form is a sense of turning inwards, back towards oneself.  For example, the Hebrew verb to walk, ho-lech, becomes pacing back and forth when it appears in the hitpalel as התהלך (hit-ha-lech).  Hence why, the struggling -  the ויתרצצו -  that is occurring within Rebecca is a struggling  between Jacob and Esau that ultimately presses back and causes them to suppress  or oppress each other.

 Likewise, the most frustrating aspect of watching and listening as the current  (and continuing) matzav, situation, unfolds in Israel is that it seems that the two sides are:  ויתרצצו בקרבה: they are struggling against each other, oppressing each other, within this small, tiny, geographic region and ultimately making little progress towards lasting peace.  All the energy is turned back towards each other.

 There is no question in my mind that Israel has every right to defend itself.  As Rabbi Eric Yoffe, former head of the Union of Reform Judaism, reminds us “no other civilized country in the world would tolerate for a week what Israel has tolerated for a decade.”  Locally, The Baltimore Jewish Council, the trans-denominational public policy arm of our Federation, better known here as The Associated, calls us to be mindful of reality, that Israel has endured thirteen thousand rockets fired by Hamas on Israeli citizens over the past 11 years.  One thousand in the last 10 months. Four and half million Israelis – half its population - are within range of rockets controlled by Hamas.   No other nation would allow so many of its citizens to live in such a terrifying situation without responding.  No other nation would be condemned for defending itself in the manner that Israel is.    

   Clearly, Israel is no other nation.  It is held to a far different standard by the International community and even by our own America.  Every mainstream American news outlet that I have reviewed is painting Israel’s attack as a “ferocious” (to quote the New York Times) offensive strike.  Moreover, American journalists have argued that the IDF’s name of the operation, “Pillar of Defense,” is a calculated instance of social and media propaganda.   While there are exceptions, the majority of citizens who have been living with random yet constant rocket strikes from Gaza view Israel’s actions very much as a defensive strike.

  At the same time as Israel can and should be supported in its decisions to defend itself, there is room for criticism.  As an op-ed writer for Haaretz wrote on Thursday, “past experience teaches that pinpoint assassinations of the heads of political movements and military organizations [such as was Ahmed al-Jabari] are not necessarily effective.”  They not only fail at reducing conflict, they often give rise to more extremism.  George Baskin, the Israeli peace activist who mediated between Hamas and Israel in the deal that brought Gilad Shalit home, says that despite his opinion that, “Al-Jabari was in line to die, not an angel and not a righteous man of peace,” this assassination may have also killed the possibility of a truce between Israel and Hamas.

 ויתרצצו – when we keep running back and forth, we often fail to move forward.  In Israel’s case, who like Rebecca has two nations struggling for control of such a small and confined space, the pressure and the struggle becomes oppressive; and, as we have seen too often, easily erupts into violence that fails to serve the broader goal of ensuring peace and safety.

  As wonderful and poetic a word as ויתרצצו is, let’s hope the situation in Israel can move from this inward pointed and non-productive struggle to an active state of progression towards reconciliation.  To borrow another biblical phrase,  רץ לקראת רץ (ratz likrat ratz) that draws on the same alliteration,  רץ לקראת רץ paints a picture of one runner  or pursuer meeting another.  Let’s pray that soon – in our day – the Palestinians and the Israelis can run out to greet each other in an effort to work cooperatively and productively towards peace.